Locke 3 “A Letter Concerning Toleration”

The blogs for the prior two weeks covered the thinking of John Locke as found in his “Two Treatises on Government”. [1] This week, I am covering his “A Letter Concerning Toleration”. [2] As previously mentioned, both of these contributions to political thought were published after the Glorious Revolution (1688), which brought William, Prince of Orange and his wife, Mary, to the throne in place of James II. The Glorious Revolution marked an end to a period of English political instability, characterized by conflict as Protestants and Catholics vied for power. Most scholars believe A Letter Concerning Toleration was initially composed around 1685, just before the deposing of James II, while Locke was in exile in Holland.

Locke’s thinking is critical for understanding the creation of American political institutions and the emergence of the American ideal of religious liberty. The American Revolution was deeply impacted by his thought and by the European experience of religious persecution and conflict, an experience that formed English and European history. The founders were well aware of the history involved and of the conclusions of the deepest thinkers concerning these problems, chief among which was John Locke.

Prior to the Reformation, Europe was Christian, and Western Europe was Roman Catholic. The early division between the Eastern and Western Churches, had little impact on Europe. In England, the Roman Church and its rites were dominant after the year 1000 or so. Beginning around 1500, this dominance was shattered. Western Europe was divided into Catholics and Protestants. Protestants were divided between Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Unitarians, Trinitarians, Anabaptists, and other sects. Not only was there conflict between Protestants and Catholics, there was conflict among the doctrines and practices of many emerging Christian sects. Eventually, Europe was involved in devastating religious conflict.  In England, there was strife between Catholic and Protestant parties, and after Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England, there was strife between the established Church and various sects that split away from the Church of England. All over Western Europe, intellectuals were appalled by the violence and bloodshed that resulted from these conflicts.

The Two Spheres

Fundamentally, in A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke argues that the Church (and by implication all religious institutions) and the State (and by implication all of the institutions of civil government) are two separate types social institutions, with different goals and purposes. Religious institutions are concerned with the ultimate meaning of life, personal salvation, and the worship or lack of worship, of a God. Civil government is concerned with the right ordering of a society to protect persons and property. While these two social powers have some interaction, as to the use of civil power to establish or control religious thought, Locke believes it is not appropriate for the state to interfere with religious affairs or for religious groups to use, or attempt to use, force, legal or otherwise, in achieving their aims. This insight finds its way into the American Constitution in the form of the First Amendment, with its protection of religious liberty.

Limitations on State Power to Establish a Particular Religion

As mentioned earlier, by Locke’s day England had experienced a degree of religious conflict that sometimes worked to deprive some persons of life and property. Initially, Henry VIII separated from the Roman Church and used the power of the state to restrict Roman Catholic influence. When Charles I, a Catholic, ascended to the throne, there was conflict that resulted in the Cromwellian Revolution and the ultimate execution of Charles. When Charles II was restored to the throne, conflict reemerged and only finally terminated with the Glorious Revolution that assured the dominance of the Protestant Church in England. This conflict, however, was not the end of the matter, for the emergence of various “free church sects” and theological divisions within the Church of England meant that the Church of England was tempted to use its political influence as the established church to eliminate what it considered heretical ideas. In Scotland, there was always opposition to repeated attempts to institute an episcopal form of government and to interfere with their Presbyterian forms.

In response to these problems, Locke argued that it is not appropriate for the power of the state to be used to establish or enforce private religious beliefs. Civil government is established for the protection of persons and property, so that individuals can pursue their private interests in peace. Civil government is formed to deal with the external, physical things of life not sacred aspects of life.  Thus, Locke says:

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing of their own civil interests, Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possessions of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture and the like. It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all people in general and to each one of his subjects in particular the just possession of those things belonging to this life. [3]

Here we have a principle that limits the power of the state in matters of religion: In contemporary terms, the state has to do with secular things, with the regulation of civil life for the benefit of a society. The protection of life and property, the defense of persons against aggression, foreign and domestic, and equal protection of non-discriminatory laws are the duties of civil government. As a corollary to this limitation, civil government should not interfere with the private religious beliefs of persons or groups.

In Locke’s terms, responsibility for the cure of souls is not given to secular civil government.[4]  According to Locke, this is true because:

  1. Such power over the human was never given by God to civil authorities;
  2. The only power that the state possesses is exterior, physical force (the power of law and the sword), which is not effective to create true, effectual, inward, private belief; and
  3. The powers and penalties of the civil estate cannot, for these reasons save human souls or advance any true form of religion.

As is often true with Locke, these arguments combine a Christian theological and a secular philosophical set of arguments.

The Religious Duty of Toleration

Religious groups are (or at least should be) private, voluntary societies formed for the worship of God. Thus, Locke states:

A Church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord for the public worship of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual for the salvation of their souls. I say it is a free and voluntary society. [5]

The importance of the word “voluntary should not be overlooked. Throughout human history very few people considered religion “voluntary. Parents, local chieftains, kings, and emperors normally regulated religions within their boundaries. With few exceptions, the choice of the dominant religion was that of the ruler, and only in a few cases did these rulers feel that religious toleration was necessary or desirable. Locke’s view is, therefore, revolutionary. Religion should be a matter of private choice.

There are important implications of this notion of the church as a private, voluntary society formed by human beings for their own private religious edification:

  1. Just as the state should not abuse its civil power to establish (or de-establish) a religion, no religious group should seek to use civil power to promote the primacy or rights of their group.
  2. Because there will always be differences of opinion among various religious groups and sub-groups concerning matters of worship, faith, and practice, no religious group should be able to use the power of the state to assure their victory in such matters nor should the state interfere with matters of worship or belief.
  3. People, therefore, must be free of state interference to choose for themselves which group to belong to and what religious views to hold. [6]

Just as the state must refrain from interfering with religious groups by the use of civil power, so also religious groups should tolerate other groups and refrain from attempting to use civil power to forward their religious group. The powers of religious groups are purely private and ecclesiastical and do not include any resort to civil power.

This duty of toleration goes beyond mere passive tolerance.  Locke believes that religious groups have a positive duty of toleration of other groups and of restraint from seeking to harness state power to secure their beliefs. This is true for the following reasons:

  1. No church is bound to retain any person within its society who does not believe and adopt its beliefs and practices and so has no need for civil power to maintain its own beliefs and practices. In addition, no private person has any right to complain of another person’s or group’s faith or practice. This extends to pagans and persons of different religions. In other words, religion is a private matter.
  2. Different religious groups should tolerate each other just as they are tolerated. Thus, Locke says, “… peace, equity, and friendship are always to be observed by particular churches in the same manner as private persons, without any pretense of superiority or jurisdiction over one another.” [7] This kind of forbearance is difficult to achieve because all religious groups conceive that their doctrine and practices are correct. In Christian terms, there is a natural tendency for each group to consider themselves orthodox and others in some way heretical. The only way to maintain social peace in his kind of situation is to deprive any group of the power and opportunity to persecute any other group. Where there is no such power, the virtue of toleration will be present. [8] This is the genesis and genius of American freedom of religion.
  3. Finally, in what I think is the finest passage of A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke concludes that religious leaders have a positive duty and obligation not just to maintain toleration but to preach and work for toleration:

It is not enough that ecclesiastical men abstain from violence and rapine and all manner of persecution. He that pretends to be a successor of the apostles, and takes upon him the office of teaching, is obligated to admonish his hearers of the duties of peace and goodwill towards all men, as well as towards the erroneous as the orthodox: towards those that differ with them in faith and worship as well as towards those that agree with them therein. [9]

Locke concludes this argument warning religious leaders that they will be held accountable by the Prince of Peace for their words and actions in this area of toleration.

The Civil Duty of Toleration

When Locke says that civil authorities are not to interfere with religion, he does not mean that there are no civil duties with respect to toleration. Civil authorities are to work from a recognition that their powers and duties are purely civil in nature, given to them for the sole purpose of creating social peace and providing for the general welfare. This has implications for the conduct of public affairs:

  1. Civil magistrates should not interfere with religious worship and belief and should resist any attempt by religious groups to secure advantages due to a partnership with public powers. Civil wisdom gives government no insight into religious faith or its proper forms, and therefore civil authorities are incompetent to make such decisions.
  2. Civil authorities cannot and should not interfere with religious matters under the guise of supporting the decisions of religious authorities as to religious matters, since such authorities sometimes err and are, in any case, often self-seeking.
  3. Finally, and back to a constant argument Locke makes: force is not an appropriate way to decide private matters of conscience. Even if the magistrate is correct in his or her judgement, even if the ecclesiastical authority upon which the magistrate bases his or her action is correct, force is not an appropriate way to resolve matters of private conscience. [10]

While civil authorities should not become involved in either external forms of worship or internal matters of belief, they do have continuing functions that impact religious matters and may and do restrain religious activity:

  1. Civil authorities may make laws that prohibit certain otherwise religious activities. For example, if a group wished to institute child sacrifice as a private religious rite, authorities prohibit such behavior generally and may continue to do so, even if a religious group is impacted. This restriction has been important in areas such as bigamy and the use of illegal drugs in worship.
  2. Civil authorities may make laws to protect society that indirectly impact religious groups. Most recently, for example, states have restricted religious groups as well as secular groups in the ways they can meet as a result of Covid19. [11]
  3. In the exercise of its rights and duties to protect and promote the public welfare, however, the state must be diligent not to unduly or subversively interfere with the rights of religious groups to worship. [12] Thus, laws and policies designed to harm worship should be avoided. Recent decisions by some states to open up bars and other places of entertainment but cause churches to remain closed are good examples of violations of this restriction.
  4. Finally, the protections of religious toleration have limitations for Locke, some of which we would not consider valid today. Atheists and those who would under the guise of religious freedom secure religious domination are not protected or would be religious groups formed for the purposes of overthrowing the state or preventing the state from achieving the purposes for which a commonwealth is formed—the protection of persons and property.


As has often been the case with these blogs, the complexity of Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and its importance for American democracy goes beyond the power of a short summary like this one. It requires some thought to adjust some of Locke’s thinking to a religiously plural society such as ours. It takes a willingness to recognize that secularism is itself a kind of religion and it must abide by the same restrictions as do Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindu’s, and others in the advancement of their “religious” views. Nevertheless, A Letter Concerning Toleration remains a fundamental document of both interest and learning when it comes to understanding the past, present, and most desirable future of American thought.

One of the reasons that I began this series of blogs was to defend the role of religion in American public life. This endeavor requires an understanding of both the opportunities and limitations on religious groups, and importantly the duty of tolerance among religious groups, including groups that deny the importance and validity of religious faith and practice. This is the first stop in a long journey in the development of a way of defending religious toleration in contemporary society.

A clue to the way in which the argument may unfold is the role of what I have called “political love” in public life. Toleration is a fundamentally negative concept, meaning that toleration allows without wishing the best for those of other beliefs. The Christian view, taking love as the fundamental character of God that believers are to emulate requires of Christians not just toleration but positive love for those who faith and practices differ from ours.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), 376.

[2] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration tr. William Popple (1689, republished 2014). All quotations are from this edition.

[3] Id, at 8.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 11. I have taken liberty with this quotation to clarify the grammar for the modern reader, it goes without saying that this insight of Locke is monumental and undercuts any kind of state-established religion.

[6] I have summarized arguments Loke makes throughout A Letter Concerning Toleration. See for example, Locke, at 8-19, 42.

[7] Id, at 17.

[8] Id, at 19.

[9] Id, at 21.

[10] Id, at 25-29.

[11] Id, 30-36.

[12] Id, at 36.

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